<Today one of the brothers asked me: Is it a terrible prison, not to be able to move from the place where you’re standing?>
<You answered …>
<I told him that I am now more free than he is. The inability to move frees me from the obligation to act.>
<You who speak languages, you are such liars.>
Han Fei-tzu sat in lotus position on the bare wooden floor beside his wife’s sickbed. Until a moment ago he might have been sleeping; he wasn’t sure. But now he was aware of the slight change in her breathing, a change as subtle as the wind from a butterfly’s passing.
Jiang-qing, for her part, must also have detected some change in him, for she had not spoken before and now she did speak. Her voice was very soft. But Han Fei-tzu could hear her clearly, for the house was silent. He had asked his friends and servants for stillness during the dusk of Jiang-qing’s life. Time enough for careless noise during the long night that was to come, when there would be no hushed words from her lips.
“Still not dead,” she said. She had greeted him with these words each time she woke during the past few days. At first the words had seemed whimsical or ironic to him, but now he knew that she spoke with disappointment. She longed for death now, not because she hadn’t loved life, butbecause death was now unavoidable, and what cannot be shunned must be embraced. That was the Path. Jiang-qing had never taken a step away from the Path in her life.
“Then the gods are kind to me,” said Han Fei-tzu.
“To you,” she breathed. “What do we contemplate?”
It was her way of asking him to share his private thoughts with her. When others asked his private thoughts, he felt spied upon. But Jiang-qing asked only so that she could also think the same thought; it was part of their having become a single soul.
“We are contemplating the nature of desire,” said Han Fei-tzu.
“Whose desire?” she asked. “And for what?”
My desire for your bones to heal and become strong, so that they don’t snap at the slightest pressure. So that you could stand again, or even raise an arm without your own muscles tearing away chunks of bone or causing the bone to break under the tension. So that I wouldn’t have to watch you wither away until now you weigh only eighteen kilograms. I never knew how perfectly happy we were until I learned that we could not stay together.
“My desire,” he answered. “For you.”
“‘You only covet what you do not have.’ Who said that?”
“You did,” said Han Fei-tzu. “Some say, ‘what you cannot have.’ Others say, ‘what you should not have.’ I say, ‘You can truly covet only what you will always hunger for.’”
“You have me forever.”
“I will lose you tonight. Or tomorrow. Or next week.”
“Let us contemplate the nature of desire,” said Jiang-qing. As before, she was using philosophy to pull him out of his brooding melancholy.
He resisted her, but only playfully. “You are a harsh ruler,” said Han Fei-tzu. “Like your ancestor-of-the-heart, you make no allowance for other people’s frailty.” Jiang-qing was named for a revolutionary leader of the ancient past, who had tried to lead the people onto a new Path but was overthrown by weak-hearted cowards. It was not right, thought Han Fei-tzu, for his wife to die before him: her ancestor-of-the-heart had outlived her husband. Besides, wives should live longer than husbands. Women were more complete inside themselves. They were also better at living in their children. They were never as solitary as a man alone.
Jiang-qing refused to let him return to brooding. “When a man’s wife is dead, what does he long for?”
Rebelliously, Han Fei-tzu gave her the most false answer to her question. “To lie with her,” he said.
“The desire of the body,” said Jiang-qing.
Since she was determined to have this conversation, Han Fei-tzu took up the catalogue for her. “The desire of the body is to act. It includes all touches, casual and intimate, and all customary movements. Thus he sees a movement out of the corner of his eye, and thinks he has seen his dead wifemoving across the doorway, and he cannot be content until he has walked to the door and seen that it was not his wife. Thus he wakes up from a dream in which he heard her voice, and finds himself speaking his answer aloud as if she could hear him.”
“What else?” asked Jiang-qing.
“I’m tired of philosophy,” said Han Fei-tzu. “Maybe the Greeks found comfort in it, but not me.”
“The desire of the spirit,” said Jiang-qing, insisting.
“Because the spirit is of the earth, it is that part which makes new things out of old ones. The husband longs for all the unfinished things that he and his wife were making when she died, and all the unstarted dreams of what they would have made if she had lived. Thus a man grows angry at his children for being too much like him and not enough like his dead wife. Thus a man hates the house they lived in together, because either he does not change it, so that it is as dead as his wife, or because he does change it, so that it is no longer half of her making.”
“You don’t have to be angry at our little Qing-jao,” said Jiang-qing.
“Why?” asked Han Fei-tzu. “Will you stay, then, and help me teach her to be a woman? All I can teach her is to be what I am—cold and hard, sharp and strong, like obsidian. If she grows like that, while she looks so much like you, how can I help but be angry?”
“Because you can teach her everything that I am, too,” said Jiang-qing.
“If I had any part of you in me,” said Han Fei-tzu, “I would not have needed to marry you to become a complete person.” Now he teased her by using philosophy to turn the conversation away from pain. “That is the desire of the soul. Because the soul is made of light and dwells in air, it is that part which conceives and keeps ideas, especially the idea of the self. The husband longs for his whole self, which was made of the husband and wife together. Thus he never believes any of his own thoughts, because there is always a question in his mind to which his wife’s thoughts were the only possible answer. Thus the whole world seems dead to him because he cannot trust anything to keep its meaning before the onslaught of this unanswerable question.”
“Very deep,” said Jiang-qing.
“If I were Japanese I would commit seppuku, spilling my bowel into the jar of your ashes.”
“Very wet and messy,” she said.
He smiled. “Then I should be an ancient Hindu, and burn myself on your pyre.”
Copyright © 1991 by Orson Scott Card